Joyce, James (James Augustine Aloysius Joyce)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Joyce, James (James Augustine Aloysius Joyce)

Joyce, James (James Augustine Aloysius Joyce) (1 882-1941) Irish novelist and short story writer

An exceptional author in the literature of empire, James Joyce chose exile from his rigidly Catholic country as a means of liberating his mind and spirit. Born in Rathgar, south of Dublin, to a failed distiller, John Stanislaus Joyce, and pianist Mary Jane Murray Joyce, the author was the eldest of a family of 15 children, five of whom did not survive to adulthood. Attending University College in Dublin, he studied English, French, and Italian and immersed himself in the dramas of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. In 1904, Joyce and his future wife, Nora Joseph Barnacle of Galway, moved to Trieste in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he taught English at the Berlitz School. In a newspaper essay in Il Piccolo della Sera, he railed against the hanging of an innocent Gaelic speaker who was unable to understand the charge of murder leveled by an Anglo-Irish magistrate. To support the couple and their son and daughter, Joyce delivered lectures on WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE and began composing an autobiographical work of fiction published in 1916 as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A film, Nora (2000), features Ewan McGregor as the author during a difficult time in his career and self-imposed exile to Europe to escape a colonized society encumbered with poverty and slavish devotion to Catholicism.

Joyce used his talents as a voice for nontraditionalists and rebels. His essay “Ireland at the Bar” (1907) bristles with outrage at injustice to the poor rural Irish who speak no English. He pictures an elderly defendant as “a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge … a symbol of the Irish nation” (Joyce 2000, 146). Joyce spurned political parties and religious prelates and drew literary parallels between savagery toward the Jews during the Roman Empire and the subjugation of the Irish by the British Crown. During the Irish literary revival of the early 20th century, he mocked the Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s three- act comedy The Playboy of the Western World (1907) as a propaganda play legitimizing Eurocentric sovereignty and cultural stereotyping of the Irish as drunken hicks and barflies. With literary finesse, Joyce’s short stories “Araby” and “The Dead” from the collection Dubliners (1914) examines the outsider from the perspective of Joyce himself, a fellow pariah and expatriate in Zurich whom the British marginalized for his blatant Irishness and agitation for home rule. With marked despair for the author’s homeland, the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” charges Irish politicos with failure to live up to the idealism and commitment of the Irish reformer Charles Parnell (1846-91). In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce returns to extreme hero worship of Parnell, claiming “The priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave” (Joyce, 2003 25).

Through jest, caricature, burlesque, and SATIRE, Joyce’s complex stream-of-consciousness narratives treat issues of autonomy and the outsider’s rule over the Irish Catholic peasant. With an historical quest novel, Ulysses (1922), the author pays tribute to the humble Irish yeoman as the backbone of the empire and honors Dublin, a largely ignored Catholic capital that merged ancient Celtic heritage with British additions. The text ridicules the character of the English imperialist Haines and castigates the London Times for being a colonial apologist in matters of Irish nationalism and civil liberties. Joyce's lingual wizardry wrings puns and gibes out of “imperial, imperious, imperative” (Joyce 1990, 131). To the character Stephen Dedalus, the enemy is the “brutish” empire (594). Heavy sarcasm between two characters describes the inglorious bureaucracy as “a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons,” “yahoos” who suppress “drudges and whipped serfs” (329). In agreement, the character Joe snorts that the Irish suffer in an empire “on which the sun never rises” (329), a subtextual comment on Ireland's despair. The exchange ends with a parody of the Apostles' Creed as it applies to Jack Tar, iconic British sailor.

Joyce suffered recurring eye problems and surgeries due to glaucoma, often hampering his work. Nonetheless, he threw himself into the composition of Ulysses as well as his other great novel, Finnegans Wake, the full version of which he published in 1939 to disappointing reviews. Having finally married Nora in 1931, he died in Zurich on January 13, 1941, still exiled from the country that had provided him with a rich source of material. Joyce's fiction was a vehicle for the actress Anjelica Huston, who starred in the film version of The Dead (1987).


Booth, Howard J., and Nigel Rigby. Modernism and Empire: Writing and British Coloniality 1890-1940. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Signet, 2007.

----- . Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

----- . A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin, 2003.

------- . Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1990.